David Bowie (1947-2016) – forever crossing-over to the other side

Written by: Robert Matthew-Walker

David Bowie on tour in Chile in 1990
Photograph: Jorge Barrios; Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

In the initial post-Beatles era of the late-1960s/early-1970s, David Bowie was the most significant musical figure in world pop music, and like many whose work lay in what will be considered the non-classical area, he was also exceptionally wide-ranging in his musical interests.

Perhaps Bowie’s most far-reaching innovation (although it was, in fact, more a development than being wholly original in ethos) was his ability to re-invent his image and musical persona. Arising from the psychedelia movement which began in the mid-1960s, he embraced – perhaps more fully than any British-born artist – the concept of invariably adopting a new image, or (in his case) an effective persona virtually with each new album.

In this regard, he was inspired – as were The Beatles, The Who, the Moody Blues, Jimmy Webb, and very many other artists and groups – by the liberating influence of the 12-inch 33⅓rpm LP, which could last up to an hour and which enabled popular-music composers to be no longer constrained by the temporal straightjacket of the 45rpm single – although he could write successful single songs which were issued on 45s – and he did.

An interesting aspect of latter-day pop-based musicians is that the longer-lasting compact disc has not similarly fired a number of significant large-scale concept albums, a handful of later artists notwithstanding.

A result of the liberating effect of the relatively new medium, Bowie’s conceptualisation of LPs as leading to total musical statements was greatly significant, but he had two further inestimable, advantages: the first was his training in theatre and his fascination with role-playing, perhaps based upon the psychological uncertainty of knowing precisely who he was (a search for self-realisation which would take him longer than most people to complete, although there is no doubt he did achieve such an enlightening state) and the second was an uncanny ability to absorb influences from a much wider range of music and transmute them into what was considered to be his own. And in this regard, the influence and cross-cultural fertilisation from modern classical music of the time was perhaps his greatest – but still very little-appreciated – achievement.

David Bowie on tour in Chile in 1990
Photograph: Jorge Barrios; Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

There is no doubt that the two were fired when Bowie attended the world premiere at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 22 April 1969 of Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King. That astonishingly original dramatic masterpiece made a deep and lasting impression on the 22-year-old Bowie. He had been taken to the concert by a neighbour, Malcolm Smith, who at that time was a senior member of staff at Boosey & Hawkes, Maxwell Davies’s publishers. They had met on the platform of Sundridge Park railway station (they both lived nearby – Bowie in Plaistow Grove) and Malcolm recalled that he had been in the habit of taking the questioning young singer-songwriter to several classical events, and had been encouraged by his positive responses.

Seven years ago, Classical Source published a short essay I wrote regarding the effect Eight Songs for a Mad King had on Bowie’s early development, and I will not repeat in full what I said there other than to note that that the effect on the audience that night was electrifying; outside of a horror movie, no-one had ever seen or heard any piece of music quite like it.

Paul Griffiths [in Peter Maxwell Davies, Robson Books, 1982] hits the nail firmly on the head when he states: “…this is far from being a Bedlam sideshow to titillate an audience. Nor does the work allow us to congratulate ourselves as superior to the eighteenth [actually, early-nineteenth] century in our gifts of compassion, and in this respect it joins all those other Davies works that reject the easy solution … the perturbing character of the work is due not merely to its startling depiction of insanity but more to the fact that it obliges us to acknowledge that the madhouse does exert a terrible fascination.”

The smashing-up of the violin may have been akin to those contemporary accounts of rock musicians wrecking their guitars and loudspeakers – the personification of a deep frustration, railing against a world that could not then bring to account the American quagmire of the Vietnam War, or the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia – and if, almost fifty years ago, peace was not being given a chance, as John Lennon hoped it would be, it seemed – more to the point, in this instance – Peter Maxwell Davies’s later arrangement for guitar of the Lennon-McCartney song ‘Yesterday’, demonstrated that, beneath the surface differences of late-1960s rock music and avant-garde ‘classical’ composers (even Leonard Bernstein’s “Concert for Peace” in Washington Cathedral – radical-chic or no), there was a unifying sense of common humanity, especially amongst the young, which could – in Eight Songs – depict a ruler’s madness at one historical remove and relate it powerfully to the ongoing “terrible fascination” (as Griffiths said) for audiences of what happens when things get wholly out of hand and beyond our control.

To a young, impressionable, artistic, musically-gifted observer at the QEH in April 1969, witnessing this masterpiece for the first time, the effect must have been extraordinarily powerful. Less than two months later, with a new recording contract just signed with the American Mercury label, David Bowie recorded the first two songs for a new album, ‘Wild-Eyed Boy’ from Freecloud and a new version of ‘Space Oddity’. The latter song had not yet become the worldwide hit it was soon to be; it was to be the title-track of the new album on reissue in 1972. If this album is more famous because of ‘Space Oddity’, there is an amazing track which, surely, has to have been inspired in part by the experience of seeing Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs six weeks earlier – namely, ‘Cygnet Committee’.

This oddly-titled song, with its distant recollections of a collection of fledglings, is without question Bowie’s most remarkable creation up to that time. It traverses an exceptionally-wide harmonic spectrum with tension and counter-tension present in every bar. There is hardly one bar in the whole of this nine-and-a-half-minutes track which can be said to be in any one particular key; although that may be an exaggeration, the impression of harmonic uncertainty is unmistakable. The harmony screams tension and drama; there is no let-up as the singer expounds his tract.

The considerable ambiguity in this song would appear to be the imagined confession of a superman figure sympathetically looking down on those of his followers who, through free will, have merely been handed the tools by which they will fashion their own destruction. No better example of the correlation between music and meaning can be found in the phrase “and as the sparrow sings”. It begins in B-flat minor and then suddenly slides down a semitone to A with an added D-sharp, almost tilting the music through a vast tonal spectrum, dizzying the listener with richness and strangeness.

Such is Bowie’s power that in the concluding pages the music almost takes on a modal aspect, with the voice high in its register, (self-)tortured between two semitones (the melodic justification for the earlier harmonic slip), incessant in its demands and (self-)pity, recalling (in Griffiths’s phrase) the “manic intensity” of Maxwell Davies’s earlier Revelation and Fall (the HMV recording of which Bowie is known to have heard, courtesy of Malcolm Smith). The kind of monstrous physical assault the song depicts leaves most listeners stunned. No more potent pointer to aspects of Bowie’s later developments can possibly be found in his work up to this time.

The more one studies Bowie’s work after ‘Cygnet Committee’, the more one is convinced that the impact of witnessing Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs set off one of the most iconic rock careers in living memory. Ziggy Stardust – an imaginary other-worldly figure, infuses the next album, concluding with a deranged suicide attempt, the whole traversing the diabolus in musica, an augmented fourth (G-major to D-flat) and the following album, Aladdin Sane (‘a lad insane’), is chock-full of further extraordinary dichotomies: in essence, those of derangement and rediscovery – the personification of Bowie’s own struggle for self-identity and self-awareness: the essence of youth.

Peter Maxwell Davies
Photograph: John Carewee

In return, after reading my essay, Sir Peter wrote to say that he had always been an admirer of Bowie – especially of his paintings – and there is no doubt that from the mid-1970s Bowie had catapulted himself to the forefront of international pop culture, and was being taken seriously by a wide range of musicians: his alter egos opened up a new world of expression, the combination of music and graphic art and personal appearance. This aspect was certainly new, in that by that time Bowie had demonstrated he was not going to ‘stay the same’.

The practicalities of such a chameleon-like expression may have been presaged in music by Stravinsky, but I recall only too well the astonishment with which the sales force of RCA (then issuing Bowie’s recordings) greeted the Low album – and the look of uncomprehending dismay with which that further ground-breaking song-cycle was greeted by those whose job it was to try and sell this music. It was as though, having established himself, Bowie was intent on discarding that which had ‘made’ him, shedding new light on a previously unknown (and therefore unfamiliar) aspect of his creativity. It was an early example of him apparently living his life in public – a characteristic maintained until his profoundly astonishing final uttering of just a week or so ago.

Bowie’s Low album remains a fascinating glimpse of what might be fairly termed as minimalism in pop music, but with far-reaching implications such as to exert influence in reverse: Philip Glass’s First Symphony (1992) is based upon music from the album (his Fourth on another of Bowie’s albums, Heroes), although whether the harmonic oscillations of parts of Low were created entirely by Bowie or by his musical collaborator, Brian Eno, are unclear – and ultimately irrelevant: for our purposes, Glass’s ‘Low’ Symphony would not have come into being in the form it did were it not for David Bowie.

Bowie himself was a charming man who was not totally concerned that his work might have had a reverse influence on a leading classical composer: at least, not when I met him, by chance, in a small restaurant in Gstaad, where I had gone to make a TV film about Yehudi Menuhin at Menuhin’s home. I introduced myself, and Bowie thanked me for the book I had published about him in 1985. Not wishing to interrupt his meal further, I went to leave his table, but he was curious about my reference to “adjacent tonalities” and asked me to explain. Although, for my analytical mind, this was a feature of much of Bowie’s music, he was quite unaware of it himself.

Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra

We also discussed the conductor Eugene Ormandy, whose recording of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf Bowie narrated for RCA (it was added to the previously-recorded orchestral part), Bowie agreeing that Ormandy was one of the kindest and most generous of musicians; a further classical association was the appearance on The Man Who Sold the World of Ralph Mace, a remarkable musician (fine pianist and conductor – in both categories for James Galway), who had played the tricky synthesizer part on ‘Memory of a Free Festival’ and went on to become RCA’s classical supremo in Europe.

It was Bowie’s single-minded determination to be himself – a remarkable journey of self-awareness and self-realisation – that drove so much of his work, receptive to all kinds of outside influences at the same time as demonstrating his powerful command of the essence of pop-music greatness in such incomparable singles as ‘Young Americans’ and the astounding duet version with Mick Jagger of ‘Dancing in the Street’.

Bowie’s multi-musical and stage-image personas may well have had a natural inner drive, but it produced, to my mind, the most significant of his influence on others – the next generation, most notably on Madonna, eleven years Bowie’s junior, who became the feminine equivalent of a chameleon-like artist, with the influence of Britten and Shostakovich almost too apparent on ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ – an attitude that Bowie himself most assuredly embraced.

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